A lot of guys play piano but there is only one Piano Man. It has been that way since 1973. But Billy Joel is more than just a musician with a catchy moniker, he is the transformational recording artist who has sold more than 150 million records. His success is nothing short of astonishing and when asked to explain it, he answers simply, “I’m competent”. Understatement aside, Billy’s songbook has served as the soundtrack to multiple generations of fans and is as beloved as any of the last 50 years. Joel’s songs resonate because they speak to the flaws found in everybody and the problems that avoid nobody. He is also perhaps the most gifted melody maker this side of Paul McCartney. However, Billy has always had a precarious relationship with his songs.
Joel was once asked what his song writing process was like? He replied, “It’s like pulling teeth”. Billy would later say, “I wrote the lyrics to all my songs, so they all mean a lot to me cause they were all a pain in the ass to write”. When asked what his favorite of his own songs are, he stated “I tend to like the album tracks, not the ones that are the hit singles”. Over the years Billy has listed several of his compositions as his favorite including “New York State of Mind” from 1976 and “Downeaster Alexa” from 1989. However, in a 2017 interview with Stephen Colbert, Joel listed his five favorites of his own tunes in order. Here are Billy Joel’s top five Billy Joel Songs.
“We have Nashville in America, that’s ‘Music City U.S.A.’, but in Europe, ‘Music City’ is Vienna”. Billy Joel has always had an affinity for Vienna. His biggest composing influence, Ludwig van Beethoven, lived and died there. But Vienna represents more than just a physical place for Billy. “When I wrote ‘Vienna Waits for You’, I meant that it’s a place where you close the circle. By going to Vienna, suddenly things started to make sense in the world for me, which is really what the song is about. Like, ‘slow down, look around you, and have some gratitude for the good things in your life’. That’s what Vienna represented to me”.
The song was released as the B-side to “Just the Way You Are” in 1977. “Just the Way You Are” won Grammys for Record of the Year and Song of the Year but he chooses not to perform it in concert. However, “Vienna” is a staple at nearly every Billy Joel show.
4. And So It Goes
The song was originally written in 1983 but was not released until Joel’s album “Storm Front” in 1989. “And So It Goes” illuminates Billy’s tumultuous courtship with one of the most famous supermodels in the world…but not the one you might think. The tune expresses his crumbling relationship with teenage Australian bombshell Elle MacPherson. Shortly after the breakup, Joel met and eventually married American supermodel Christie Brinkley. In a 2010 interview, Billy stated that “And So It Goes” was “his least-appreciated song – the best one that casual fans aren’t aware of”.
3. You May Be Right
This tune from his 1980 album “Glass Houses” is the only one on Joel’s list that was a hit single. It reached #7 on the US Billboard Hot 100. The album represented Billy’s efforts to change his image and update his musical appeal. He felt he had been pigeonholed with the commercial success with such hits as “Honesty” and “Just the Way You Are”. Billy’s goal with “Glass Houses” was to shatter the image of him as a balladeer. He succeeded. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote that “Glass Houses is the closest Joel ever got to a pure rock album”.
With “You May Be Right”, as the first track on the album, Billy wanted to set a decidedly different tone from his previous two albums. “What I was doing with this first song” Joel said “was getting back to my bar band roots…‘You May be Right’ was about being crazy and maybe I’m nuts, maybe you’re right, but maybe that’s what you wanted in the first place, that’s essentially what the lyric is. But it’s fun, hang out with me cause I’m nuts”.
For a hit song by the “Piano Man”, the song conspicuously lacks a piano presence. Billy has stated that “You May Be Right” is his favorite song to perform live and often gets out from behind the piano and sometimes even plays lead guitar. The iconic guitar riff was inspired by Keith Richards and Brian Jones. As Billy says, that “magically, jangly guitar thing that the Stones were so good at…’You May be Right’ was in that same tradition”. Joel later explained the song, saying simply, “I wanted to write a rocker”. People thought it was crazy. Turns out Billy was right.
2. She’s Right on Time
Billy has described this tune as “a positive song, but there’s still an edge of anxiety in it”. Appearing on the album “The Nylon Curtain” from 1982, “She’s Right on Time” tells the love story of two imperfect people who are perfect for each other. It deals with the themes of separation and reuniting set against Christmas time. “I always wanted to write a Christmas song” Joel stated, “but they always came out kind of dumb. This one has references to Christmas in it, which is the way I did it”. Billy also revealed his vocal inspiration for the song: “I’ll tell you who I was trying to sing like; one of my favorite singers of all time…a guy named Steve Winwood. So, I was trying to sound like Steve Winwood…and introduce an element of Christmas.”
1. Scenes from an Italian Restaurant
In 1977, Billy Joel released his fifth studio album called “The Stranger”. It spent 137 weeks on the U.S. Billboard charts and was certified Diamond by the Recording Industry Association of America. To date, it has sold over 10 million copies. The album also spawned four hit singles: “Just the Way You Are”, “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)”, “She’s Always a Woman”, and “Only the Good Die Young”. But it is the album’s fourth track that Billy called the favorite of all his songs.
“Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” is actually a compilation of compilations that Joel strung together to create his nearly eight-minute epic. The concept was inspired by the band that had the most impact on Billy, as he stated, “I had always admired the B-side of Abbey Road, which was essentially a bunch of songs strung together by (producer) George Martin”. Thematically, the song focuses on disillusionment and reflects upon the growing pains that go along with growing up too fast. Music critic Scott Floman notes that the tune “shows off Joel’s knack for telling stories and creating rhymes”. Coincidentally, the opening lines were inadvertently supplied to Joel by a waiter in an Italian restaurant during a severe bout of writer’s block. “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” continues to serve as a highlight at Billy’s shows to this day.